“I Don’t Like It” Otherwise

Unpacking Australia's history of blackface in Australian media


Words || James Booth

Chris Lilley has released a brand new show called “Lunatics” for our viewing pleasure.

For now, let’s ignore the concept of portraying mental health as something comedic (trust me, we will definitely unpack that at a later date).

The show has sparked even more controversy for the representation of character “Jana”, a South African lesbian and poet who is a pet psychic – I know that’s a lot to take in. Jana appears to be a continuation of Lilley’s trend of using blackface in his comedy,  however this touches on a lengthy history of ethnic people being represented as idiots by white people in western nations.

It is strange to think that in 2019 we’re still having conversations surrounding the portrayal of ethnicities and religions by people external of those groups. Like many people, I have been left wondering just how someone can fail to realise how offensive blackface can be to groups who see very little representation of their cultures in the media.

Racist stereotypes have permeated our media for almost as long as there has been a media scape, notions that ethnic people are uncivilised or stupid have led to a history of caricatures of race that impact representation today. We have the Jim Crow era of cartoons in which characters were made to poke fun at the African American populations in the United States, including the “Sambo” and “Mammy” caricatures of Black women. These traditional caricatures have even inspired recent illustrations, such as the controversial drawing of Serena Williams by Australian cartoonist Mark Knight in 2018.

Historically we have seen these representations extend into an Australian context. Kate Florence Upton’s “Gollywog” character gained popularity in Australia and England during the 1990’s, and with its black skin, frizzy hair and red lips can be seen as a comparable representation of these images in an Australian context.

Within Mel Gibb’s popular Snugglepot and Cuddlepie series, we also see the gumnut babies tormented by the “Banksia Men” who have been compared to racist caricatures of first nations people. Not to mention the racial representations of our Japanese enemies during the second world war, it becomes really evident that white Australia has been historically ignorant when representing people of colour.

Blackface is the term used to describe a non-black performer portraying a black role, and often involves the painting of the performers face black. It is not unique to the black experience, and we have similarly seen the representation of Asian cultures through “yellowface” or south Asian cultures through blackface and “brown-voice”.

What is the common thread in each of these circumstance is that white individuals like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Peter Sellars in The Party, are used to represent racist caricatures of Asian cultures instead of actually empowering Asian people to hold these roles.

This even continues today where we see white actors portraying even cartoon characters with “ethnic” voices, removing the voices of those minorities from their representation.

It is not hard to see the historical use of blackface continued today, the Dutch Christmas character Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”) is traditionally played by a white actor with their face painted black and wearing an afro wig. This character remains as controversial today as it was when Mel B of the Spice Girls called it out on live TV, screaming “Change your culture” and “IT IS THE 90s!” at the host of a Dutch television show when Zwarte Piet characters came out to meet them. Well what is scarier than Scary Spice, is that it is 2019 and we’re still having the same discussions and still seeing people defend racial stereotypes as “tradition”.

These instances aren’t unique to other cultural dynamics. In Australia we’ve seen controversy sparked on Hey Hey it’s Saturday, when 5 individuals re-enacted their Jackson Five Jive skit for red-faces that they had performed 20 years prior.

We saw five individuals perform in afro wigs and black face paint, and try to pass it off as comedy.

Recently I was shocked when a new friend told me about the concept of “blacking up” in sports teams. Not only are the kids doing the twerking and the tweeting, but now they are ”blacking up”.

This surprised me because I’d never really considered that in the spaces that we see blackface being perpetrated, the idea of painting your skin darker for costume was seen as something fun, silly or a trend. This idea has been seen time and time again in which white sports stars portray black celebrities for dress up parties, and it seems as if the cultures of these environments actively excuses the behaviour.

So where am I going with all of this?

The simple answer is that we have an individual – Chris Lilley. Who Macquarie University lists as an “outstanding Alumni” of our university, who has a lengthy history of using Blackface in his comedy and is actively celebrated for it. His 2011 character’s Mouse from Angry Boys was a fictional American Rapper which involved Blackface, and has caused lots of controversy for the actor. Lilley even reposted the song “Squashed N**ga” a week after the man responsible for the death of Elijah Doughty was acquitted of manslaughter for running over the boy. This is not to mention the Summer Height High character Jonah, in which Lilley uses blackface to caricature stereotypes of Polynesian people.

Perhaps this is what is most surprising about the character of Jana, when original reports of “Lunatics” surfaced it was believed that the character was a caricature based on Rachel Dolezal – a woman born white, who now proudly identifies as Black by living in Blackface. It is unclear at the time of writing this article, whether the character will see Lilley use blackface to unpack the problematic nature of people like Dolezal.

However, given his history and the consistent use of blackface by white Australia as a means to caricature brown people, this seems somewhat unlikely.

In exploring all of this, I am not saying that the exploration or criticising of ethnic culture is inherently wrong. In fact, I believe that we should be exploring and unpacking our own cultures, their norms and their flaws.

However, when non ethnic people use stereotypical representations of people of colour instead of involving actual people of colour in the production or acting – that’s where we have a problem. Let ethnic people have a say in comedy about us, and stop supporting individuals who seek to represent ethnic people in stereotypical fashions.

As Mel B put it, “you should have actual Black people playing this character”. She’s right, and “I don’t like it” otherwise.